In the rec.food.cooking group, questions periodically recur about the
various types of cookware. This FAQ is an attempt to answer the most
common of these questions in detail. I like both facts and opinions
when I'm trying to make up my mind, so I've included some of each in
People buying their first decent cookware often ask what the "best"
cookware is. This is like asking for the best vehicle; it depends on
whether you want to haul gardening supplies, drive across the country,
or compete in a race. Similarly with cookware, different materials
have their advantages and disadvantages. Many pans combine several
materials to achieve a good compromise.
Ideally, you probably want to have several different kinds of pans
made of a variety of materials - perhaps you would choose a cast iron
skillet, an enameled cast iron casserole, and tin-lined copper
saucepans. It depends on what you like to cook and on personal
preference. There isn't much point in getting a wok if you don't
stir-fry, or a double-boiler if you don't make fragile sauces.
You many be tempted to get a set of cookware, because it is considerably
cheaper than buying each piece individually. This isn't necessarily a
good idea, because sets force you to stick to one type of pan, and you
don't have much choice as to which pans you get. Ask yourself if you
are going to use every pan that comes in the set; if not, it might be
cheaper just to get the ones you want. Before you buy a set, I highly
recommend trying out a sample piece; getting one from a friend is ideal,
but many cookware lines sell one pan cheaply as a teaser to get you
hooked. A small saute pan or skillet is commonly used this way. If you
decide that a set is a good idea, and are not that experienced yet, you
should almost certainly choose a fairly small collection.
It is very important to keep in mind that personal preference has as
much to do with finding the best cookware as anything else; you may
hate my favorite pan. You may also balk at the prices; a single
piece of quality cookware can cost more than a big set of cheap pans.
Still, I think that good cookware is worth the investment, because it
will last a very long time. If you are going to spend a lot of time
in the kitchen using your pans, don't buy something cheap that burns
everything you put in it and has the handle fall off just when you are
trying to impress your future spouse. Good pans won't cook for you,
but bad ones can be a real menace.
Enough pontificating. I'll start by listing the characteristics of the
various materials, and then move on to discuss different brands. For
each brand, I've tried to include comments from people who have actually
used it personally. Then there's a quick discussion of where to look in
order to get a decent price (mail order vs. your local stores). I've
finished up with two topics that seem to be perennial in this group: the
care and feeding of cast iron pans, and how to buy a wok.
** Aluminum **
Aluminum has very good heat transfer, but it is quite reactive - it
flavors some dishes. If you ever see a recipe call for non-reactive
pans, they mean "don't use aluminum or cast iron". Aluminum has
gotten a bad reputation, because many cheap pans are made of it. They
are usually thin, warp quickly, and are prone to hot spots (and hence
burning and sticking). Don't buy one. Not all aluminum pans are bad,
though; restaurant supply houses often carry thick aluminum pans for
reasonable prices, and they can be a good deal.
An alternative to pure aluminum is anodized aluminum. This is a nice
cooking medium; it is not nearly as reactive, and you can safely cook
almost anything in it. You might avoid using it for, say, pickles,
and should not store something like tomato sauce in it overnight. A
good thick anodized pot will transfer heat well and doesn't warp.
Recently there was some research that suggested a link between
Alzheimer's disease and aluminum. This led to a great deal of anxiety
about aluminum pots, and a general sense that it would be best to avoid
them. Subsequent research has shown that the original experiments were
badly flawed. Further, there is no evidence that consumption of aluminum
leads to higher risk; if the link were there, you would expect workers in
aluminum factories to be contracting the disease in great numbers. This
has not happened and there seems to be little cause for worry.
** Carbon Steel **
You will most likely encounter this material in a wok. It is the
traditional choice in Asia, and should be treated just like cast iron. A
good carbon steel wok should be solidly built and quite cheap; it will
last a lifetime if cared for properly.
** Cast Iron **
This is one of the oldest materials to cook in, and still one of the
best. Because they are tremendously heavy, cast iron pans provide
very even heat. It takes them a while to get hot, but once there they
even out any oscillations in heating. Cast iron must be handled a
little differently than other materials; see the end of the FAQ for
more details. A well seasoned pan is quite non-stick; ideal for
pancakes, etc. You can also get cast iron as hot as you like, for
blackening or stir-fry.
Cast iron is a particularly good material for two kinds of pans:
skillets and dutch ovens. A Dutch oven is simply a big, heavy
casserole; cast iron works well, because it maintains an even heat
despite any temperature swings your oven may be subject to. Another
good material for casseroles is enameled cast iron (see below).
There is some controversy among cast iron aficionado as to whether
the seasoning is better for pans with a rough or a smooth cooking
surface. I don't have any opinion on it, and have seen arguments
on both sides, so I will just mention the issue without trying to
Because cast iron is highly reactive, some people suggest that you
should avoid making acidic foods like tomato sauce in it. At least
after it is seasoned, however, I think this advice is unnecessary. I
have used cast iron pans to make hundreds of batches of tomato-based
sauces with no difficulty.
One final thing to know is that it is possible to shatter cast iron if
it falls onto a hard floor (though this is not that likely and I would
worry more about giving the floor a hefty dent).
A variant on the straight cast iron pan has an enamel lining. This
eliminates the need for seasoning, the reactivity, and lets you clean
the pan any way you like. You keep the heavy weight and even heating,
so this kind of pan is terrific for braising, casseroles, etc. - any
dish that wants to be heated evenly for a long time. However, you do
lose the non-stick quality of the seasoning layer and such pans often
don't do very well at browning. Unlike cast iron, these pans are
usually quite expensive.
** Copper **
The traditional choice for continental cooking. Copper has excellent
heat transfer, so it is very responsive. It has three problems: it is
expensive, a nuisance to clean, and poisonous. Because of the last of
these, you never cook with a pure copper vessel. You can use pure copper
for a few things, most notably a mixing bowl for egg whites; there is a
chemical reaction between copper and the albumen in the whites that makes
the whites froth more quickly and resist over-beating. When no heat is
applied and contact is relatively short, the copper isn't dangerous to
use. Although it is possible to cook with an unlined copper pan, if
acidic food is left in contact with it for any length of time and/or at
heat, a poisonous reaction can occur. All cooking pans must therefore be
lined with something so that the food doesn't contact the copper. See
the listings for tin, nickel, and stainless steel for more details.
Copper looks nice when it is bright and shining, but it doesn't stay
that way very long unless it is polished regularly. Some people like
the look of unpolished copper, in which case copper is no harder to
clean than anything else, but if you feel differently you will need to
break out the polish periodically.
It is getting increasingly difficult to get good-quality copper pans;
when you find them, they usually cost the earth. The best are imported
from Europe and have a thick copper layer. The thicker, the better; good
ones are very heavy. Some pans have a very thin copper layer on the
bottom; this is unlikely to have any effect on its cooking performance.
To get the benefit from copper, there should be a thick, heavy layer (a
few millimeters thick). These pans usually come with either a brass or a
cast iron handle; the latter is the traditional choice, but is very
heavy. The former can be a sign of a cheaply made pan but can also work
perfectly well. The advantage of cast iron is that it doesn't heat up as
quickly, though both will get too hot to handle if the pot is left on
heat for an extended time.
** Glass **
Glass has one big advantage: you can see the food inside it while
cooking, without having to take off lids and allow heat and steam to
escape. However, it has a lot of big countering disadvantages
(besides, I like to smell and taste the food as it cooks!). Glass
doesn't handle extreme temperature changes well, so it can shatter if
you pour cold water into a hot pan. Things stick to it. If you drop
the pan, it will shatter. Glass is also very heat retentive, so it
doesn't stop cooking when you turn off the heat.
Some types of cookware use glass lids; unless these are very well
made, they warp. A badly fitting lid is an abomination, making the
pan useless for the many things that need to steam as they cook (like
rice). I have been told that the glass lids of modern premium
cookware, like the new Calphalon non-stick series, do not have a
By the way, I am going to be sloppy and use "glass" to mean both glass
and ceramic materials (like Pyroceramic and Pyrex). The latter are much
more resistant to cracking, so they are usually meant when discussing
** Nickel **
In cookware, nickel is used as an alternative to tin and stainless steel
for lining copper pans. It is much harder than tin, and will last a
great deal longer before wearing away, but cannot be replaced. It is
also used in stainless steel, along with chromium.
** Stainless Steel **
Because stainless steel has lousy heat transfer, pans made of it alone
have to be very thin. They are generally made cheaply, and warp in
very short order. This is dismal, causing the most trouble on an
electric range where the pan will no longer contact the heating
element well. The result: hot spots, burning, and sticking.
On the other hand, stainless has the very nice property that it does
not react to anything, so you can cook anything on it. You can store
things in it for arbitrary amounts of time, too. It is quite tough,
and can be used with metal utensils. It is also relatively easy to
clean; if a mirror finish is applied, it isn't non-stick but does
Many high-quality lines of cookware have a thin layer of stainless
steel on the inside; this gives all the benefits of stainless with
none of the disadvantages. Some people argue that lining copper with
stainless reduces its responsiveness somewhat, but I would imagine
that anyone who can tell the difference is well past the point where
this FAQ is of any interest.
One slight warning: apparently it is possible to pit a stainless lining
if it left in contact with undissolved salt for an extended period of
time. I think this is unlikely to be a problem in practice but I mention
it for completeness.
** Teflon, and friends **
Many cooks like Teflon-lined pans because food doesn't stick to them.
This is particularly important to people on low-fat diets, because
they can use little or no oil in cooking - if you saute without oil in
most pans, you will have to deal with a lot of sticking problems.
The problem with Teflon (and the reason I never use non-stick pans)
is that it doesn't last too long. You must use wooden utensils not
to gouge the layer, and Teflon breaks down around 500 degrees. If
you heat a Teflon pan very hot, the layer starts to turn into gas (an
inert one that won't hurt you, but can kill birds). Even if you
treat it well, the layer will gradually wear away - every now and
then, you must throw away your pan and get a new one.
There are a variety of similar materials (like Silverstone and T-Fal);
some of them are supposed to be more durable than Teflon. There has
been a recent trend towards high-quality expensive cookware with
non-stick surfaces that have a long (up to lifetime) guarantee. Most
of these are also safe to use with metal utensils. Some examples are
the new Calphalon line, Circulon, and Scanpan.
** Tin **
Traditionally, copper pans are coated with a tin lining. This kind of
pan isn't so popular any more, though it is arguably the best
construction of all. One problem: tin is quite soft, and if you get a
pan like this too hot the lining will melt. Even if you don't do
that, with use the tin layer wears away and the copper is exposed.
Because copper is poisonous, you must have the pan retinned when this
happens. It is getting more difficult to find a place that does
tinning, but you can still manage if you poke around. Tin also
discolors with use, and you will need to give it a good scrub with
scouring powder now and then. Nowadays copper pans are often coated
with nickel or more commonly stainless steel.
A few things to think about when you are looking at a pan:
- check to make sure the lid fits snugly
- see whether the handle is oven-safe; most cheap and many expensive pans
with plastic or wood handles can't be put in the oven
- see how well the handle is connected to the pan - rivets, welding, or
a screw that can come loose
- put something heavy in the pan; see if the handle is still comfortable to
hold and the balance feels good
- see if the pan falls over when nearly empty because the handle is too heavy
and/or too long
- if it is a big pan, check if it has some kind of handle on both sides;
otherwise it will be hard to carry when full
- make sure the bottom of the pan is *flat* if you are cursed with an
electric range; otherwise it will heat very poorly
After giving a fairly objective description of each brand, I list some
positive and negative comments from people who have used them.
** All-Clad **
All-Clad sells four different lines of cookware. All but one of them are
made of a three layer sandwich of materials; they each have a stainless
lining and a pure aluminum core that extends throughout the body of the
pan. The third material is what differentiates them. Construction in
all cases is very good and all have a lifetime warranty.
This is the exception; it has four layers. The outer two layers are a
second aluminum layer and an anodized aluminum alloy finish. The handles
are stainless steel and connected with stainless rivets. Not dishwasher
safe - discolors the exterior. I have been told that if oil drips get
cooked on the outside, they can be difficult to remove. I haven't had
the problem, but it is probably a good idea to be sure you have cleaned
the outside thoroughly after use.
Pro: "Leaving aside copper, this is my favorite line of cookware. We
have several pieces and they receive intensive use. I am very happy with
them and would recommend them without reservation." - me
The outer layer is a brushed aluminum alloy, which is not as hard as the
LTD layer so it isn't quite as scratch resistant. Dishwasher safe, though
it will darken and need occasional polishing.
The outer layer is copper; with copper pans becoming less common, this
line is one of the few that are readily available. Handles are brass
with stainless rivets. Dishwasher safe, though it will darken and need
Con: "While these are fine pans, I don't think they are a good value.
They cost more than other excellent cookware, and the amount of copper is
not enough to make a significant difference in the cooking performance.
If you want a copper pan and are willing to pay the premium, get one that
has a thick enough layer to make a difference." - me
Outer layer is stainless steel, with stainless handles and rivets. Dishwasher
** Analon **
A non-stick line that is better than Silver Stone or Teflon in its
durability, though it will eventually require replacing. They have a
glass lid, which is guaranteed against breakage for 10 years.
Pro: "It's not quite as heavy as All Clad but it's several steps above
Silver Stone. You feel you're getting good value for your money
with it." - Robert L. Williams
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